Bus ride to truth

The group traveling from Caldwell Presbyterian Church at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama.

In the dark, wee hours of a February morning (prior to the pandemic), 16 pilgrims from Caldwell Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, gathered in the parking lot behind the church. For veterans of past church bus trips, it felt familiar — at least in some ways. We loaded our bags and prayed for God’s protection. We kissed our loved ones and climbed aboard the bus with a mix of familiar emotions and questions. Had we thought of everything in our months of planning? Would we all get along over three days and 800 miles? Can a minister really drive a bus?

But there was also much that would be unfamiliar — and uncomfortable. We weren’t headed to the familiar, serene mountains of Montreat, North Carolina, for restful reflection, the beach for fun or to do mission work in Appalachia. Ours was a very different destination. This was a journey into the stark tragedy of our past, into our nation’s bloody history of enslavement. Ours was a journey towards the truth, our truth.

There is a lot of talk these days about peace and justice, about reconciliation and reparations. But before we reach any of those lofty goals, we must face, acknowledge, own and repent of our national, institutional, structural, religious and personal complicity with the violence, injustice and sin that have brought us to this time and place in our history. We must learn our history if we hope to dream, create and live into a more just and equitable future.

That’s why this trip was such an important step forward for Caldwell as a church that puts God’s call to social justice in the center of our lives. We needed to pay our respects to Martin Luther King Jr. and walk the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. We needed to step through the doors of The Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, and take in the unvarnished history of enslavement in this country.

We needed to make the direct connections between those days of slavery and its manifold legacies, America’s open wound of racial injustice, its vastly unfinished business of treating all equally. We needed to weep and wallow in the sorrow of it. We needed to sit in the discomfort of all that we would see.

We had carefully planned our route, first to Atlanta and then Montgomery and Selma. But we had no idea of what lay around the corner for the country in the weeks that followed. Call it an “awakening,” a “tipping point” or something else. Credit a holy assault on our national moral conscience or a cry from the souls of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and too many others. Whatever it was, something deep in the nation began to stir. It is still stirring, this reckoning with race, and it is stirring in our churches, too.

In its journey with race, America has reached a crossroads. One way or another, as with Jacob wrestling the mysterious figure all night at Peniel, we won’t leave this crossroads in our national journey unchanged. The same went for us 16 pilgrims as the bus lumbered down the on-ramp onto the interstate, John driving, Gail navigating and our passengers settling in.

Navigating our way back in time — John Cleghorn reflects

A few hours after leaving Charlotte, I turned the bus onto Auburn Avenue in the heart of the historic civil rights community in my hometown of Atlanta. We stepped off the bus and back in time. We bowed our heads at Dr. King’s tomb. We sat in the pews of Ebenezer Baptist Church, straining our ears as if we might still hear the echoes of his sermons.

The group traveling from Caldwell Presbyterian Church at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama.

Up the block, I stood on the sidewalk outside the King home just as my parents had the night in April 1968 when he was assassinated. Something drew them and hundreds of others there that night to stand vigil, to bear witness to a martyr.

As I stood on that same sidewalk, I reflected on my family’s own journey through the generations. My father knew and was an ally of Dr. King. But it’s also true that earlier generations of my family had enslaved dark-skinned children of God, stolen from their native land. That familial complicity followed me there, to the front steps of King’s home. It is always with me, informing my past, present and future. It wears heavily, uncomfortably, as it should.

Many of our churches, especially those in the South, have uncomfortable histories, too. Christ calls us to examine those histories unflinchingly, particularly if congregations aspire to become anti-racist.

It wasn’t until 1983, also in Atlanta, that the northern and southern wings of Presbyterians finally stacked arms and reunited. Decades later, Presbyterians still struggle mightily with race. As a denomination, we are 90% white in membership. What diversity we can claim mostly exists in congregational silos. Black Americans, Asian Americans, Latinx Americans all worship mostly in homogeneous congregations, for many understandable reasons. King’s truth about 11 o’clock Sunday mornings being America’s most segregated hour stubbornly endures. Behind that truth is the unfinished work we white folk have to do to open the doors of our churches to all of God’s children.

As for Caldwell Presbyterian Church, our journey with race has had plenty of twists and turns. After almost closing its doors in 2006, it’s been resurrected in a new form: a diverse, missional and progressive flock that mixes 350 people — Black, white and in between; affluent, poor and in between; gay, straight and trans; and from across Charlotte, with all but a few newly finding Caldwell in the last 14 years.

As newcomers, we had a hard truth to learn. Caldwell Memorial, as it is formally named, got its name when a childless widow left her inheritance to what was originally John Knox Presbyterian Church. That inheritance came from the riches earned by the Caldwell family on a slave-owning plantation just outside modern-day Charlotte.

With that revelation, our reborn flock faced a reckoning of our own. We’d learned that a space we hoped to be a safe sanctuary for the weary and wounded, a place we hoped would stand for new hope, bore the name of those who enslaved God’s beloved children of African descent. It’s a truth we are still reckoning with. Just as my own family history follows me, Caldwell’s truth came along with us as we pulled out of Atlanta and headed west to Alabama. As we went, the Caldwell pilgrims sang on, “We’ve come this far by faith, leaning on the Lord.”

Preparing for the journey that awaits us — Gail Henderson reflects

After our day in Atlanta, I needed an evening of rest — time alone to reflect in my hotel room before two days in Montgomery. I am an African American woman born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, to parents who migrated to New York City from rural North and South Carolina in the 1950s. I confess that I had been more than a little nervous about venturing deeper into the South than Charlotte, the city I have called home for the past 18 years. But here we were. Here I was in the Deep South.

The next morning, we loaded up the bus again. A member led a devotion and we prayed that God would open our hearts, our eyes, our souls. As the van lurched forward, we recalled the words we say together at the beginning of each Sunday worship service, “Let us do what we have come here to do.”

A somber mood lingers over the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, as it should. Steel monuments hang from the roof of an open-air structure, some overhead, others at eye level, face to face. Each represents a place in which a lynching took place – all over our country, not only in the South – between 1877 and 1950. Etched into each slab are the names of the victims of what the Equal Justice Initiative rightly calls “racial terror lynching.” More than 4,000 names, including two from Charlotte, represent only a fraction of all who were lynched in the name of white supremacy.

As I stood there surrounded by those monuments, I felt overwhelmed with the horror of it, the terror of it. The breadth and depth of the hate that fueled so much violence was undeniable as we walked through the memorial and as we stared silently at the jars containing soil from the sites of racial terror lynchings. Coming face to face with the horror of lynching, I wondered how much of this history of terror influenced my parents’ decision to move north.

But I had to see it, as did the other Caldwell pilgrims. If we are to face today’s truth, in our national life together, in our cities and towns, in our denomination and our churches, we must prepare ourselves. National polls and surveys say that Americans are ready to face the deeper truths of racism and how to dismantle it. If so, if that is a trip we are ready to take as a nation, we’re in for a journey that will be bumpy, uncomfortable and disquieting — but necessary, if we are to wrestle with complex topics such as reparation, reconciliation and resolution that flow from our shared racial history.

As with our church’s trip to see these sites, this journey will not be easy or smooth. It requires uncomfortable conversations. It requires passengers that are ready and willing and leaders that know the way. We will have to schedule rest stops along the way to be refreshed when our souls are weary, and our hearts are hungry and thirsty for the bread of life and the living water. We will also need to withdraw for prayer and solitude with God.

This journey will be messy. There will be conflict and hurt feelings on all sides, as we have learned at Caldwell. Those congregations that take it up won’t always agree on the best road to reach our destination: the goal of becoming an anti-racist, multicultural church that reflects the breadth, the depth and the beauty of the beloved community God longs for us to be.

It will be costly. Some will have to give up positions of power and influence. Others will have to give up the narratives of powerlessness, of inferiority and of fear. Some of us will need to build up the stamina necessary to stay on the road, to resist the urge to jump off the bus when the road gets bumpy or takes unexpected, sharp turns.

Some of us will need to acknowledge that being able to get off the bus, being able to withdraw from the discomfort of this journey, in itself is privilege. We need to acknowledge that if we are serious about moving toward healing and reparations, we must commit to paying the costs associated with this difficult and painful work.

This journey will be long. Justice has yet to roll down like mighty waters. Swords have yet to be made into plowshares. Reparations are yet to be offered. Repentance has yet to be sought. God isn’t done with us yet at Caldwell. God isn’t done with us yet as a denomination. God isn’t done with the church.

Heading home — and continuing the journey

After three long and intense days, it was time for the Caldwell pilgrims to head home. Fatigued from both the physical and emotional demands of the journey, our group loaded the bus for the seven-hour trip. We all had lots to think about.

On the way out of Montgomery, we stopped at an intersection that seemed to say it all for where we are as a nation and a denomination. It was the corner of Jefferson Davis and Rosa Park Avenues. Some can’t let go of Jefferson Davis’ Confederacy and what it represented. Others are ready to join the movement that Rosa Parks helped start decades ago and others still advance.

As our passengers read and slept in the back, we shared our thoughts about how to navigate the road ahead — not just back to Charlotte, but as co-leaders of our odd, passionate, justice-seeking flock in these days when something is stirring in America.

Every day in working together as pastors, we learn more about how our respective lives, our perspectives and life experiences complement and can bring out the best in each other. In sharing leadership, we have learned to speak truth to each other, to listen to each other, to coach and at times correct each other. We remind each other that it is really our God of love and justice that has the wheel and, as with our passengers at Caldwell, we are along for a ride with a God of grace and mercy who has promised to guide us to all truth.

“We have come this far by faith.”

John Cleghorn is pastor of Caldwell Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. His first book, “Resurrecting Church,” is due out in early 2021.

Gail Henderson-Belsito is director of congregational care and worship at Caldwell Presbyterian Church. She will be ordained as the associate pastor there in 2021.